A cleaned-up version of a Riverbend bingo card for 2014. (Image: Contributed)

In a recent opinion column about the upcoming Riverbend Festival for Nooga.com, this author erroneously credited the creation of a game called "Riverbend bingo."

The immediate firestorm was intense. Emails were written and Facebook comments were made. And although no lives were lost, feelings were certainly hurt.

Apparently, Riverbend bingo has been something of a tradition in Chattanooga since 1997.

Who knew, right? Well, a lot of you did. And probably another hundred who didn’t email me about it.

So, as a bit of an apology for the oversight and a mea culpa to those originally involved, I provide to you now the true story of Riverbend bingo.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the creation of this game involved a band of hyperlocal residents who grew weary of the nine-day festival on the river. Instead of rejecting it outright, this group of people decided to embrace the festival the only way they knew how: by mercilessly making fun of the attendees.

And it began at an iconic Chattanooga watering hole: the dirty, dank and delightful Stone Lion.

The start
Before it closed in 2004, the Stone Lion on High Street was Chattanooga’s go-to dive bar. An all-inclusive establishment, this bar served as a home away from home for everyone who didn’t fall into a specific peer group.

Lawyers, teachers, chemists, drug addicts, alcoholics and outcasts would gather over cheap beer and good conversation.

Jeff Peterson and Jeff Wormsley were friends and regulars at the bar.

"We were standing out front before the Unum Provident parking lot was built," Peterson said. "That’s where we always parked. When Riverbend came, you had to park 2 miles away to get to your own bar."

Peterson said they would get angry at the tourists who would walk past.

"There would be people wearing black socks with sandals and carrying lawn chairs out the yin-yang," he said. "So we just started pointing out stuff."

Back then, the Stone Lion had coasters that were blank on the back. Peterson remembers taking a ballpoint pen and making the original 10 or 15 cards.

He went home and Photoshopped the cards, making individual bingo cards by painstakingly typing out every square. The next day, he brought the 50 cards back to the bar and distributed them.

They used pennies as bingo chips. A new tradition was born.

"If you didn’t hit bingo within 30 seconds most nights, you weren’t near the site," Peterson said.

Riverbend bingo gets serious
An idea is important, but the ability to transform that idea into an empire is a talent only few men possess.

Wormsley is one of those men.

Worm, as he is affectionately called among friends, enjoyed the original game but quickly realized the limits.

"We all thought that it was hilarious," he said. "But after a few games with most of the cards being the same, I realized we needed a larger set of cards."

As a programmer, Worm set out to create software that would manage a large database of clues and repurpose those clues at random.

"This way, we'd have hundreds of cards and little chance any two people would have the same card or that you'd get the same card two days in a row," he said. 

But the program also allowed the group to change the culture of the game throughout the years and, if necessary, generate "family-friendly" cards for those who didn’t appreciate the raunchy version.

"Fashions change," he said. "While in 2001 it might have made sense to have 'Britney Spears shirt' as a clue, in 2014, it would be better to have '"Frozen" character shirt.'"

Once the cards are created with the program, they are given to print master Shayfus Brünner. He worked at a Kinko’s at the time, giving him easy access to machines and a variety of paper.

Each of the nine days was color-coded, depending on the day. Cards were handed out each day before the festival activities began.

Even Faith and Family Night was given a card. This was lovingly referred to as "Sweet Tea Night" by Riverbend bingo players.

The cards for every specific year contain the watermark of "Two J’s Software"—Peterson and Wormsley’s program—and whatever the logo is for that year’s Riverbend Festival.

The future
Although Riverbend bingo is still played in Chattanooga, everyone involved admits the glory days of the game ended with the closing of the Stone Lion.

"A lot of early clues had to do with things you’d see with people on their way to the festival—a cop in a car, car being towed, etc.," Wormsley said. "Most of the players then were on the railing at the bar watching people go by."

Now, the groups who play are much smaller and often play on the festival grounds.

Another factor is the age of the group. Many of the original players have grown older and settled down, according to Wormsley.

"By no means all, of course, but enough that sitting around and mocking certain stereotypes, no matter how deserving some may be of mockery, doesn’t have the appeal it once had," he said.

Still, funny is funny.

Brünner recalls a night when he achieved bingo by observing a single man as he stumbled from Riverbend.

"Public drinking and public urination—when you can see one fellow and get like four squares, it’s really special," he said. 

At one point, Peterson was invited for an interview with WTCI, but he had difficulty finding a card that was suitable for air.

"We had to rifle through about 100 cards," he said. "They were all pretty raunchy."

In 2014, Riverbend bingo is still thriving. Wormsley has received over 150 suggestions for new clues, and cards are expected to be ready for print by Friday’s opening day.

Updated @ 9:43 a.m. on 6/5/14 to correct a typographical error.